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Captain America: Civil War

Better Than Star Wars: The Force Awakens

To the horror of my colleagues in the press and evoking a chorus of gasps and boos from them at the recent press junket for CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (although Paul Rudd cheered and Kevin Feige lit up like a Christmas tree), I dared to say that which apparently should not be said: CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is BETTER than "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." I said it then, I've said it since and I say it again now. While "The Force Awakens" is a global phenomena filled with touchstones of the past 40 years that tap into and tug at every fiber of one's being, the puzzle pieces are not as integrated within the film as a whole as those in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. Hands down, CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is not only better than "The Force Awakens", but the best film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the best of the year thus far.

Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who have been with the series since "Captain America: The First Avenger", know this world and the characters intimately, and take advantage of that, going deeper with exploration into the psyche and emotions of each, expounding on and/or introducing backstories that are interwoven in the film's fabric, while developing situations and storylines that allow for exploration of themes that challenge the limits and boundaries of not only themselves, but their individual and collective places in an ever-changing world.

Akin to the United States' own Civil War, here we have brother against brother, friend against friend, as Markus and McFeely, together with directors Joe Russo and Anthony Russo, delve into the ideals of free will, the ability to choose, responsibility, self-sacrifice, self-satisfaction, vengeance, forgiveness and redemption, addressing an uncompromising code of ethics within Steve Rogers, Captain America himself. There is no longer a clear cut "right or wrong". A maturity permeates the film and each character as we see each "grow up." Although there are still enough smart-aleck one-liners bandied about, they are scaled back in number and tempered, most notably within Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man, replaced with thoughtful questioning and self-examination. These characters, the collective Avengers, have long gone beyond being "comic book heroes". There is a real sense of humanity now embedded in the on-screen fabric of reality and life as we know it, with each Avenger facing the same crisis of conscience and self-questioning as each of us, resulting in friction and conflict that serves as the catalyst to the brother against brother CIVIL WAR. Character arcs are fully developed and engrossing. The script is intricately and brilliantly written making us not only think, but entertain us at the same time.

Much of that entertainment factor, beyond the characters themselves, comes by way of action; and not just action sequences for the sake of action and set pieces. The action in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is much like the song and dance sequences in MGM musicals during the Arthur Freed years. It is a component part of the script and the story, flowing with the dialogue and story for a completely cohesive and synergistic meld of story and action. And yes, while there is the much ballyhooed "airport sequence" that brings Spider-Man, Ant-Man and Black Panther into the fold, with CIVIL WAR the Russos bring us more intimate and inventive fight choreography and sequencing that not only mirrors the emotional and moral battles between brothers and sisters, but which is also executed in closer quarters, metaphorically intensifying how personal the fight has now become for each.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR begins with a 1991 flashback to James "Bucky" Buchanan as he is released from his cryogenic state by Soviet soldiers and programmed for duty as the Winter Soldier. We witness the pain of the psychologic transformation and gain better understanding of who this man/killing machine is. We see the man. We feel his pain. And then we see the twisted result of "science."

Fast forward to the present and we meet up with Steve Rogers/Captain America, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch and Sam Wilson/Falcon as they attempt to capture Brock Rumlow/Crossbones, rumored to have survived his last encounter with the Avengers and now involved in some of sort of terrorism in the country of Lagos. Although successful in their intended mission, things go more than awry with explosions, destruction and mass civilian casualties.

Called back to Washington for a meeting with Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross, and an unusually quiet Tony Stark, the team - including Lt. James Rhodes/War Machine and Vision - is being strong-armed to agree to the Sokovia Accords which would place the Avengers under the jurisdiction of the United Nations. 147 countries have signed the Accords, believing that the Avengers need to be put in check after what happened in Sokovia, New York and Washington, D.C. And Tony Stark, already facing his own crisis of conscience having lost Pepper Potts thanks to his obsessive and difficult nature as a boyfriend, has been pushed into agreeing with the Accords once racked with guilt after a confrontation with the mother of a young man killed in Sokovia.

Not surprisingly, Rhodes is backing Stark. Also in agreement is Vision. Natasha and Widow understand the reason behind the Accords and will agree to them but are not jumping for joy. The holdout is Steve Rogers. He looks beyond the immediate rush to judgment and sees the totality of the circumstances, the "what if" factor. What if there is a threat that must be immediately addressed but the Avengers can't act without a UN resolution? What if they need to jump into action but for political reasons, they are precluded from so doing? No. Steve Rogers will not sign the Accords.

Rogers becomes even more resolute in his position when the meeting of the UN world leaders in Vienna to celebrate and sign the Accords is attacked, leaving hundreds dead and even more injured, with all fingers pointing at Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier as the masked man who detonated the building, something Rogers refuses to believe. He knows Bucky. He knows the humanity is still within him. He knows Bucky isn't responsible for this heinous attack. So while there is an all points bulletin to capture and kill Bucky, Rogers determines to find his friend and save him. Making him even more determined is the death of Peggy Carter and some words of wisdom in a eulogy delivered at Peggy's funeral by her niece, Sharon Carter; the same Sharon who was watching over Rogers while undercover for SHIELD. And standing by Rogers' side is Sam Wilson.

But it's going to take more than Captain America and Falcon to save Bucky, especially once the pieces start coming together and a new villain is in the mix, Zemo, a villain who knows the best way to bring down an empire is from within. With battle lines drawn, the teams start amassing - Team Iron Man and Team Cap.

Joining Iron Man is War Machine, Black Widow, Vision and newcomer, Black Panther aka T'Challa the King of Wakanda who is seeking revenge against Bucky for killing his father in the Vienna explosion. Of course, always on the lookout for new talent, Tony Stark discovers a young man slinging webs and swinging across rooftops and elicits his help. That young web-slinger is Spider-Man.

All now deemed criminals for violating the Accords, Team Cap is led by Captain America with Bucky Buchanan, Falcon, Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye (who comes out of retirement and doing activities with his kids to stand by Scarlet Witch and Cap) by his side. And thanks to Falcon, who's got a guy who knows a guy, Ant-Man joins in the fracas.

(Yes, this is where the "airport sequence" comes in.)

And while Team Cap and Team Iron Man are facing off, Zemo is putting the final touches on his plan for the ultimate destruction of the Avengers.

There's no denying Robert Downey, Jr., Don Cheadle, Chris Evans, Anthony Mackie, Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson know their characters inside out. Interesting is watching the growth of each character and the subtleties each actor brings to play. Notable is Johansson's performance as she imbues an ambiguity within Natasha that is so authentic, we see conflict on her face and in hesitant tentative movements. Mackie easily picks up the mantle of having some of the lighter dialogue which we might normally expect from Downey. Mackie brings more of a humorous touch as opposed to biting sarcasm which works extremely well within the story construct here. However, Downey gives one of his finest dramatic scenes in the franchise thanks to a revelation that will blow your mind.

This go-round we get to discover more about Bucky and as a result, we see more of Sebastian Stan and what he brings to the table. Stan has a brooding questioning intensity that is riveting as we, like Cap, must always wonder "which Bucky are we seeing". Stan does a delicate dance vacillating between his personalities. Similarly, Elizabeth Olsen demonstrates what a fine dramatic actress she is becoming as Wanda constantly questions herself. Olsen plays the inquisitive self-examination beautifully, particularly opposite Paul Bettany's Vision as we wonder just what's up with those two. Bettany also adds a questioning pragmatism to Vision, who is still learning the ropes as a new "being".

As Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman makes a more than impressive entrance into the MCU and without giving any spoilers, creates more than enough interest and excitement for what's to come for Black Panther. Although we've already seen and love Paul Rudd as Ant-Man, it doesn't take away from the joy of seeing his comedic antics and timing of dialogue delivery as he mixes it up with the Avengers, tossing in tongue-in-cheek one-liners that are especially effective when expressing his childlike glee at meeting each and every one of them. And speaking of childlike glee, look no further than the first perfectly cast Spider-Man with Tom Holland. Scene-stealing, wide-eyed, eager, Holland is everything you hope to see in a young super hero testing the waters with his super hero gimmick. Watching Holland and Downey at their initial meeting is hilarious as you see the 17-year old Downey come out in full force as he taunts Holland and the two go back and forth like on a playground. As with Rudd's Ant-Man, the Russos and scribes Markus and McFeely, also infuse Spider-Man with his own giddy glee at meeting the Avengers. Again, a very human touch.

Nice to see Emily VanCamp's Sharon Carter expanded here and to see VanCamp embrace the performance with a freedom that is welcoming, but also with nuance similar to that of Johansson. Daniel Bruhl is perfection as Zemo. With a baby face and performance texture that speaks anything but "villain", it falls to subtlety and dialogue delivery to inform the character, a talent which Bruhl turns on and off with ease. He fascinates. And be on the lookout for a very fun trip down memory lane as Maria Tomei reteams with her 1994 "Only You" co-star Robert Downey Jr. as Spider-Man's Aunt Mae meets Tony Stark.

The action is unparalleled not only in its incorporation as part of the "scripted dialogue", but in its execution. Switching up lensing styles from intimate handheld to crane, dolly, widescreen, we are immersed in each moment while feeling the stakes of each battle thanks to the meld of story and action. As described to me by Joe Russo, "[A]ction is very important to us. These movies are about action. The characters express themselves through action. Action has to have storytelling to enforce it. . .You'll get tired of an action sequence if it's not either defining a character or moving the story forward in some way and it takes an incredible amount of effort." Crediting Kevin Feige and the writers "who can work with us and keep us honest in terms of the storytelling" as well as the cast "who are also the caretakers of the characters in a way that we never could do", melding story and action is "by far and away the hardest thing to do on a film." Reflecting on the filmmaking process, Russo notes, "The easiest thing to do on a film is when you have a Soderbergh level cast like this to put down the dramatic scenes on camera, especially with actors of this caliber who have been playing these parts for this long. Those are some of the easiest things we do. So the hardest thing we do is executing the action." And as comes as no surprise, for Russo, the toughest sequence in the film was the airport sequence. "It's filled with a lot of moving parts, a lot of different characters. You want to move each character forward, you want to make sure you're not leaving anybody behind. I think we went well into the post process, still reshaping and rethinking and reconfiguring that sequence to make sure that it had its maximum storytelling thrust to it."

There is a conviction of purpose that permeates every aspect of CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. Be it within the characters or the script or the lensing, confidence in purpose abounds at every turn. As sure as Tony Stark is in his beliefs and as certain as Steve Rogers is in his, there is never a wavering in the investment of showing both sides of the coin and the overall package.

The bar has been set. The battles lines drawn. Be it Team Cap or Team Iron Man, CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is better than "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" and dare I say it, the best movie of the year.

Directed by Joe Russo and Anthony Russo

Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Don Cheadle, Anthony Mackie, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Rudd, Tom Holland, Daniel Bruhl, Emily VanCamp


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